Barber, Samuel -----> Classical Music Reviews

Samuel Barber Piano Concerto Die Natali Op 37 Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance Op 29A Commando March Recorded in Royal Concert Hall and Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, March 2001 and March 2002 NAXOS American Classics 8.559133 [60'35"] Stephen Prustman, Piano Royal Scottish National Orchestra Conducted by Marin Alsop Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is known as a quintessentially American composer and this series, under the title American Classics, suggests that the listener should indeed perceive him in that way. It is interesting, then, t find that the works recorded here are far more likely to pin Barber firmly to the mainstream of Western European cultural heritage than to underline his iconic status as a transatlantic prophet. Indeed, the Piano Concerto of 1960, the main work on the programme, was conceived as a traditional concerto for virtuoso soloist and large orchestra, very much in the grand romantic tradition of the 19th century. That it succeeds is amply demonstrated by this performance in which Stephen Prustman negotiates the formidable virtuoso challenges of the solo part with aplomb. It is more surprising that this work should have won a Pulitzer prize in 1963 and a Music Critics Circle Award in 1964. Surprising not because of any inadequacies in the composition, but simply because it is so resolutely outside the gambit of what was 'contemporary' (read 'trendy' in modern parlance) in those years. This is a broad sweep of a work in the traditional three movements, even sticking to the classical mould as far as having a heavy-weight first movement, seductively lyrical middle and dynamically brilliant finale goes. One wonders whether such a work would receive any critic's praise, let alone an award now, when we seem to be so scared of the weight of traditional thought. The other major works on this disc are Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance Op 29A and Die Natali Op 37. Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance form two movements from Barber's original ballet score Medea written for the great Martha Graham. Filled with lush orchestration this receives a glowing performance from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with Marin Alsop crafting a carefully balanced performance weighted perhaps in favour of the rich sound of the RSNO's particularly fine string sections. Die Natali was written in the same year as the Piano concerto (1960) and, as the title suggests, draws on Christmas themes for its material. These are developed and treated in particularly inventive ways; the wonderfully oriental wind accompaniment to the section based on "We three kings of Orient are" being especially riveting. It is all too easy for Christmas orchestral fantasias to get bogged down in sentimentality, a charge that can be levelled even at the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols and is undeniably the case with that other annual radio favourite, the Carol Symphony of Victor Healy-Hutchinson. Barber avoids this trap with meticulous attention to the thematic development, creating a texture wherein the (well known and easily recognised) themes are never allowed to dominate the structure. Marin Alsop balances the forces of the orchestra to achieve the same ends and the result is brilliantly colourful exercise in both orchestration and thematic development. The disc concludes with the short Commando March written in 1943, a pseudo-Waltonian exercise in Circumstance without having much in the way of Pomp. More like a soundtrack backing for cinematic military activity, Barber was evidently quite keen on it, given the various re-workings for military band, concert band and symphony orchestra. One wonders whether he would still be, given his country's current belligerent military stance. ((c) Peter Wells 2002)

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